A land divided

 

SREBRENICA ANNIVERSARY:It is 16 years since the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb forces, but time has healed few wounds and all sides agree that Bosnia is now mired in its worst crisis since the killing stopped

VINKO LALE

Time has not quite stood still here in the village of Bratunac, near Srebrenica, but it hasn’t moved on as Europe and the US hoped, and it hasn’t washed away all the anger, bitterness and mistrust that divided Bosnians when their brutal three-year war ended in 1995.

Thousands of people will gather in Srebrenica next week to mark the 16th anniversary of the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces and Serb paramilitaries.

Ratko Mladic, who led that attack on the United Nations “safe haven”, is finally facing trial for genocide and war crimes at the UN court in The Hague. His wartime political boss and another long-time fugitive, Radovan Karadzic, is also in the dock.

But the capture of these two men has not brought solace to Bosnia. Muslims here are resentful that Mladic and Karadzic remained free for so long, that Bosnian Serb leaders still refuse to denounce war criminals, and that perhaps thousands of Serbs who played some role in all the killing will never face justice.

The Muslim, or Bosniak, community does not have a monopoly on suffering or anger here, however. Some Serbs feel victimised by the international community and threatened by what they see as the Bosniaks’ bid to dominate the country. The minority Croatian population, meanwhile, is increasingly radical in demanding more power to protect its interests.

These deep-seated fears and competing aims, combined with the ill-will, incompetence and corruption of many local leaders, have paralysed the clumsy system of government that was devised at end the war.

The only thing that all sides agree on is that Bosnia is now mired in its worst crisis since the killing stopped.

Lale leads an organisation of Serb civilians who were imprisoned by Bosniak forces during the war. He complains that Serb suffering has been obscured by a simplistic narrative of the conflict in which Muslims are portrayed solely as victims and Serbs as ubiquitous aggressors.

He says that at the start of the war in 1992, he was taken from a family lunch by Muslim neighbours “to answer a few questions”. They imprisoned him for 18 months in a grain silo in the nearby village of Tarcin, where hundreds of Serbs were beaten and tortured by Bosniak guards. They received tiny amounts of food and water, and many fell ill as the silo floor became covered with excrement.

More than 500 Serb civilians are thought to have been held in the Tarcin silo and about 24 were killed, some from beatings and disease but more from gun and shell fire while doing forced labour for their Bosniak captors. The silo was one of scores of camps in which Bosniaks and Croats held Serbs, but only a handful of people have been charged with crimes committed in them.

“What happened in these concentration camps is not recognised and we get no help from Bosnia or the international community,” says 49-year-old Lale. He is, by turns, tearful and angry as he recalls his ordeal, and steadily drains the bottle that bears the emblem of his organisation. “The official story is that only one side suffered in the war. No one talks about crimes committed by the ‘good guys’. The international community and institutions such as the court at The Hague give no justice to Serbs, and that has deepened the gap between people here. Everything is aimed at maximising Muslim suffering and minimising what the Serbs went through.”

Last year, the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia announced that a total of 104,732 people had been killed in Bosnia during the war, including more than 68,000 Muslims, almost 23,000 Serbs and 9,000 Croats. Of the 161 people indicted by the court, almost 100 are Serbs and only 10 or so are Bosniaks.

There is no doubt about which community suffered the most during the war, but many Serbs still claim that far fewer than 8,000 Muslims were murdered at Srebrenica. They are encouraged in this claim by nationalists such as Milorad Dodik, leader of Bosnia’s Serb-run region, Republika Srpska.

“Look, what Serbs did at Srebrenica was wrong, and they should be punished for that,” says Lale. “But justice should be equal for all. A mother from Srebrenica doesn’t cry more than a Serb mother. Officially there is only ‘Srebrenica pain’ and no one else’s pain matters.”

A SHORT WALK FROMLale’s office is the fading pink facade of the Hotel Fontana, a rundown establishment touched by infamy for its role in Europe’s worst massacre since the second World War. It was here that Mladic met the leader of the Dutch UN troops charged with protecting Srebrenica and thousands of Bosniaks who had taken refuge at their compound in a nearby factory. The Dutch were hopelessly undermanned and ill-equipped for their task. Mladic demanded that the UN peacekeepers step aside, and promised to protect all Muslims who surrendered to his troops.

The massacre began in earnest on July 12th 1995, when Muslim men and boys were rounded up and taken away to be slaughtered.

Thousands of people who fled into the hills around Srebrenica rather than trust Mladic’s word were hunted down by his men. At the doomed UN compound, Mladic’s soldiers raped, tortured and murdered with impunity.

“My husband told us not to worry, that the world would protect us and not give us to the Serbs to kill like sheep in the yard. People thought they were saved when the UN came, but I never believed in them,” says Fadila Efendic, whose husband and son were murdered here.

Her husband’s head and body were found in separate mass graves, a result of Serbs using bulldozers and trucks to exhume and rebury victims in different pits in an attempt to hide their crimes.

Only her son’s legs have so far been found.

“Why does the world think the people who tried to destroy Bosnia will now build it up? People like Dodik and others in Republika Srpska [the Serb-dominated territory] will do anything to join Serbia,” warns Efendic, who, like many Bosniaks, fears the consequences of the eventual departure of EU troops and politicians from Bosnia.

Her opinion of Dodik is common among Muslims here. He runs the Republika Srpska region like a fiefdom and, although not threatening violence, resists international efforts to reduce its autonomy, vowing to seek independence rather than strengthen the Bosnian state. Dodik’s rhetoric feeds Serb fears of a unified Bosnia, suggesting that Serbs at the mercy of the Muslim majority could suffer revenge for the crimes of Karadzic, Mladic and their cohorts.

Bosniak parties, meanwhile, support the EU- and US-backed drive for greater integration between Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the entities created by the Dayton peace deal that ended the war. Such integration is considered central to Bosnia’s bid for EU membership.

These opposed visions of Bosnia’s future have hampered the country’s recovery since the fighting stopped, and have now paralysed it completely. Disputes have prevented the formation of a government since elections last October, prompting the International Crisis Group to warn that violence is a “real prospect . . . in the near future unless all sides pull away from the downward cycle of their maximalist positions”.

While Bosniak and Serb parties have long been at loggerheads, the situation is now inflamed by rising anger among the Croats who dominate the Herzegovina region in the west. They feel cheated by the efforts of Bosniaks to ally themselves with small Croat groups and exclude the most popular, and most nationalist, Croatian parties from power. Some Croat leaders are now calling for the Muslim-Croat Federation to be dissolved so that Croats can have their own entity where they would run their own affairs without fear of being outvoted by Bosniaks.

ALL OF THIS IS A LONG WAYfrom the internationally sponsored dream of a truly unified Bosnia in which refugees would return to their old homes, communities would mingle once more and people could choose leaders because of their policies rather than their religion.

Violence is not imminent in Bosnia. Most people here want peace, work and stability, but a residual fear does linger. While nearly everyone agrees that good personal relations among Muslims, Serbs and Croats are not only possible but common, most people also believe that their interests will be protected only by leaders of their own ethnicity.

Power-hungry politicians stoked the ethnic fires that razed Bosnia by convincing people to fear their neighbours. Then they dispatched “defensive” forces, led by men such as Mladic, to administer ethnic cleansing as the remedy for that fear. Many of today’s politicians retain power and grow rich by keeping the fear simmering, albeit on a far lower flame than 20 years ago. Moderate voices are being marginalised, and the past, present and future of Bosnia are still matters of fierce dispute. Mladic may be behind bars, but the demons he helped unleash still stalk this country.

“I have decided to frame a big photo of Mladic and put it in my office, as a sign of respect for him and of disrespect to the international community,” says Lale, drinking bitter rakia behind his desk in Bratunac. “And 99.9 per cent of people in Republika Srpska feel that way.”

A few kilometres down the road towards Srebrenica, opposite ranks of white headstones that mark the graves of Mladic’s victims, the widow Efendic offers her own figures. “If foreign soldiers and politicians left Bosnia and forgot about us, I’m 99 per cent sure that fighting would start again,” she says. “The roots of Mladic’s thinking have not been taken out, and will grow back. If the Serbs had enough guns they would kill us.”

Bosnia War and peace

1991

Following the collapse of communism, left, nationalist parties begin to thrive across Yugoslavia. Slovenia and Croatia declare independence. After 10 days of fighting with the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army (JNA), Slovenia gets its freedom. In Croatia, war begins as the JNA and other forces loyal to the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, right, try to stop it breaking away from Belgrade’s rule.

1993

Fighting breaks out between Bosnian Croats and Muslims, who had been allies against the Serbs. Croat forces destroy the famous bridge at Mostar, below, splitting the city into Croat and Muslim halves. Ethnic cleansing is rampant across Bosnia, with Muslims the main victims.

1995

Nato air strikes fail to stop Mladic’s forces attacking UN safe havens, culminating in the fall of Srebrenica, where some 8,000 Muslims are massacred.

Under growing pressure from Nato bombing, economic sanctions, counterattacks by Croatian forces and a new Muslim-Croat alliance in Bosnia, Milosevic breaks with Karadzic and signs the Dayton peace accord that ends the wars.

1992

Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats vote for independence. Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadzic, reject the vote, and fighting starts.

With the help of former JNA units, including those led by Gen Ratko Mladic, the Serbs quickly take swathes of territory and drive Muslims from their homes. Mladic’s forces begin their 44-month siege of Muslim-controlled Sarajevo. Some United Nations peacekeepers deployed in parts of Croatia are sent to Bosnia.

Today

Bosnia has approximately 3.9 million inhabitants, 46 per cent of them Muslim, 38 per cent Serb and 15 per cent Croat. The Dayton accord divided Bosnia into two “entities” of almost equal size, the Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, right.

The Bosnian state has a parliament, a government, a prime minister and a president, and each entity also has these institutions, making decision-making slow and complicated.

The country is overseen by an international high representative with executive powers to implement the Dayton deal.

The EU and US want to weaken the entities and strengthen the central state, something Republika Srpska is resisting fiercely. Muslims and Croats generally favour a stronger central state, but popular Croat parties now accuse Muslim leaders of trying to exclude them from power, and some are calling for the creation of a third, Croat-run entity. Squabbling between all sides has left Bosnia without a government for nine months, its worst political crisis since the war.

Ratko Mladic: Bosnia to The Hague

Ratko Mladic was born in 1943 in the Bosnian village of Bozanovici. He studied at a military-industrial college in Belgrade before joining the Yugoslav National Army (JNA).

He served in Kosovo and Croatia as Yugoslavia collapsed into war. In 1992 he was sent to Bosnia. His men blockaded Sarajevo, sniping at and shelling civilians from the surrounding hills in a 44-month siege that claimed 10,000 lives.

When part of the JNA formed the new Bosnian Serb army he became its commander, and is accused of leading a campaign of ethnic cleansing. His forces overran UN safe havens, including Srebrenica, where 8,000 Muslims were massacred in July 1995.

The UN court in The Hague indicted Mladic for genocide and war crimes that year, just before the conflict ended.

Mladic lived in Belgrade until at least 2001, after which elements of the security forces are thought to have shielded him in Serbia and Bosnia. Mladic’s family claimed he was dead, but, with the country’s EU membership bid under threat, Serbia’s police arrested him at his cousin’s house in the village of Lazarevo on May 26th this year.

Mladic was extradited to The Hague, where his trial began on June 3rd.